San Francisco Weighs Corruption Reform — Will It Work?

Federal officials keep intervening in the city’s recurring corruption problem but local options exist.

For the second time in six years, San Francisco is mired in a federal corruption case that jeopardizes public trust in local institutions. What could change this time around?

The FBI arrested Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru twice in late January, once for alleged schemes to sway city contracts and the second for reneging on a deal to cooperate and keep quiet. Nuru faces up to 25 years in prison and resigned from his position on Monday.

Nuru and restaurateur Nick Bovis are charged with one count of wire fraud for the alleged attempted bribery of an airport commissioner so Bovis could obtain a coveted lease. The 75-page FBI complaint pads the charge with a pattern of corruption, including a billionaire developer in China providing Nuru with an opulent trip and $2,000 bottle of wine to help with permitting for a project at 555 Fulton St. A city contractor,  identified by NBC Bay Area as former Public Works employee Balmore Hernandez, also allegedly bribed Nuru with a tractor and did cheap or free work on the director’s vacation home while the Examiner revealed Bovis’ charity put money for needy kids toward lavishing Public Works

The ripples were immediate. After calling for the need for an independent investigation, supervisors Matt Haney, Gordon Mar, Hillary Ronen and Dean Preston began the process last week to hire a Robert Mueller-like special investigator. The supervisors specifically want to see a detailed review and recommendations about contract procedures, evaluate powers of city department heads, as well as the city’s whistleblower program for improvements including preventing retaliation toward employees reporting misbehavior.  

“This is clearly something broken beyond the actions of a single person and we should be looking at those broader systems,” Haney told SF Weekly. “We need to shine a lot of sunlight and bring in outside investigators to both restore the public trust and root out corruption.”

Haney also announced on Tuesday plans for a charter amendment for November to split street cleaning responsibilities from Public Works and to restructure the department. Public Works manages the city’s infrastructure and has no commission or oversight body. Nuru and others in the department wielded more power than other officials and have withstood cries of abuse around homeless encampment sweeps, which Mayor London Breed denies the city has done despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, that trash people’s only belongings.

Mayor London Breed directed the City Attorney’s Office — led by past Nuru critic Dennis Herrera — and the Controller’s Office to launch a joint investigation into contracts at Public Works, San Francisco International Airport, and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, where Nuru served as the board chairman.

But Jon Golinger, a political observer who teaches election law at Golden Gate University, is concerned with the executive power over those positions, or what will be done with their findings. 

Golinger supports an independent investigator but also thinks it could be time to revive discussions to create a voter-elected inspector general or public advocate office whose sole task is to keep the city government in check. Anyone with a connection to people in the complaint should recuse themselves in resolving the matter, he says.

“What’s truly shocking is that no one in San Francisco City Hall did anything about it and that it took the federal government to step in and devote significant resources,” Golinger says.

San Francisco’s last corruption scandal hails from the not-so-distant past of 2014, when an FBI investigation into Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow yielded the arrests of state Sen. Leland Yee and political consultant Keith Jackson on bribery charges related to then-newly elected Mayor Ed Lee’s campaign debt. It quietly ended in April 2019, when former Human Rights Commission staffer Zula Jones pleaded no contest to felony bribery and Jackson pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts for making a campaign contribution of more than $500 in someone else’s name.

By then, another expansive and expensive FBI investigation involving wiretaps and undercover agents was already underway to focus on Nuru. 

Split appointments, where the Board of Supervisors and Mayor’s Office each get a say in who sits on what board, and term limits is another approach Golinger advocates to balance power — something Peskin, Preston, and Haney told SF Weekly they are in favor of. 

As of yet, there seem to be little public hints of change or specific commitments from the institutions tasked with keeping city employees in check.  But, as Mission Local’s Joe Eskenazi points out, there’s new District Attorney Chesa Boudin outside the city family who ran as a disruption to the status quo. His office has a public integrity unit, which spokesperson Alex Bastian urges to contact at 415-553-9535 with any information. 

The uncertainty of other shoes to drop makes it harder to fully assess the problem before hammering out the full set of solutions, Golinger and supervisors say. Peskin acknowledges that San Francisco is both the “Wild West” with little stringent accountability but that people also make honest mistakes and agrees a better method is needed to inform rules and procedures.

“I want to make sure we don’t do it in an impulsive manner,” Peskin says. “Before we go and do political posturing, let’s get it right.”

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